Ireland 'unwise' to pick a fight over fishing in Scottish waters

Rockall Image copyright Andy Strangeway
Image caption The Scottish government has threatened action against Irish vessels found fishing within 12 miles of Rockall

The head of Scotland's largest fishing industry organisation has said Ireland would be "unwise" to pick a fight over fishing rights in Scottish waters.

Bertie Armstrong from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation (SFF), said increased Irish activity around the islet of Rockall was clearly illegal.

He backed Scottish government threats of "enforcement action".

And he said it was time for Scotland to "put its money where its mouth is" and enforce control of its waters.

However, Seán O'Donoghoe from the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation, defended the Irish fishermen.

"They're extremely worried and we expect that of there is any detentions here we will have the full backing of the Irish government to defend ourselves against what we consider is an illegal act by the Scottish authorities," he said.

Image caption Seán O'Donoghoe said the Scottish authorities would be acting illegally if any of the fishermen were detained

The row involves the uninhabited islet of Rockall in the North Atlantic.

It is an eroded volcano that lies 260 miles (418km) west of the Western Isles and is only 100ft (30m) wide and 70ft (21m) high above the sea.

'Very unwise'

The UK claimed Rockall in 1955, but Ireland, Iceland and Denmark have previously challenged that claim.

The row between Scotland and Ireland broke out after increased activity from Irish vessels around Rockall and the Scottish government has said it will take "enforcement action" against Irish vessels found fishing within 12 miles of Rockall from Saturday.

Mr Armstrong told the BBC the SFF was behind the move.

Image copyright Getty Images

He said: "We are absolutely alongside the Scottish government in this matter.

"They are doing exactly the right thing. There is illegal activity going on and the Scottish government is absolutely right in taking whatever action is appropriate to stop it.

"It is perfectly visible to both governments because all the ships are fitted with a monitoring system by law. So everybody will know exactly who is there and if it is likely that they are fishing or not."

He believes the Scottish government has to take a hard line on the dispute ahead of Brexit, when the UK will be responsible for its own waters.

He said: "This territory is established in international law. What they are doing is illegal.

"In the whole context of approaching a time when we will be an independent sovereign coastal state, with complete control over all our own waters, then it's time to demonstrate that we are prepared to put our money where our mouth is.

"Under Brexit we will have sovereignty over UK territorial waters which will include this area. Any access to those waters will be at the behest of the governments of the land.

"In my view it would be very unwise of Ireland to pick a fight when just over the horizon there is a much broader swathe of arrangements to be made."

Image caption Bertie Armstrong from the SFF believes it is a black-and-white case of illegality

A spokeswoman from the Scottish government said: "Irish vessels or any non-UK vessels for that matter have never been allowed to fish in this way in the UK's territorial sea around Rockall and, despite undertaking extensive discussions with the Irish authorities on the matter, it is disappointing that this activity continues. 

"There has actually been an increase in that illegal activity and, with the Rockall fishery season nearly upon us, it is our duty and obligation to defend the interests of Scottish fisheries and ensure compliance with well-established international law.

"We have provided an opportunity for the Irish government to warn their fishers not to fish illegally and hope that this opportunity is taken up as this will of course obviate the need to take enforcement action - which would otherwise be implemented to protect our fisheries interests."

Possible arrests

Enforcement action might involve patrol boats from the Scottish government going alongside any vessel believed to be breaking the law and, if necessary, making arrests.

Irish ministers have described Scottish government comments as "unwarranted".

The Irish government's minister for agriculture, food and the marine, Michael Creed said he was trying to, "avoid a situation whereby Irish fishing vessels who continue to fish for haddock, squid and other species in the 12-mile area around Rockall are under the unwarranted threat of 'enforcement action' by the Scottish government".

He added: "However, following this sustained unilateral action by them, I have no option but to put our fishing industry on notice of the stated intention of the Scottish government."

The Rockall fishery is a multi-million pound annual fishery, with several species of fish including haddock, monkfish and squid.

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